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Press officer who accused bishop of lying wins case

by Pat Ashworth

THE FORMER director of communications for the diocese of Liverpool, the Revd David Johnston, has won a case for unfair dismissal. His compensation payment was reduced by 25 per cent because of allegations he made about the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones. A three-day hearing had been expected, but the employment tribunal reached its decision in 15 minutes on Monday.

The ruling marks the end of a long and complex set of proceedings which has put Mr Johnston at loggerheads with Bishop Jones. Mr Johnston separated from his wife in February 2006, and later began a relationship with Diane Pendleton, his PA. He confided to Bishop Jones in August 2006 that divorce proceedings had begun.

Mr Johnston has said in evidence of that meeting: “The Bishop told me that he was shocked, and that he would have to give the matter prayerful and thoughtful consideration.” The following day, he was told by Mike Eastwood of the Liverpool Diocesan Board of Finance that the Bishop was taking “legal and professional advice about your position”.

On 26 November 2006, The People published an article about his relationship with Ms Pendleton. Mr Johnston has described it as “a piece of salacious gossip without foundation”, and “an ill-conceived, inaccurate and defamatory piece of tabloid journalism”. The couple took legal action against The People, which published an open letter of apology and retraction on 27 May 2007.

Mr Johnston was temporarily suspended as the Bishop’s press officer on 1 December 2006. He and Ms Pendleton raised a joint grievance. In response to the article, the dioceses of Liverpool and Manchester (where Mr Johnston had formerly been an assistant curate) sent out a press release, which appeared in an edited form in the Church Times on 8 December.

The statement said: “The Bishop [of Liverpool] takes pastoral and employment responsibilities very seriously indeed and as such he is not in a position to override employment law. The Bishop is aware of the vulnerabilities of a number of people in all of this, and has tried to offer appropriate guidance to the different parties. The Bishop views this very seriously, and is concerned to uphold the highest standards of Christian behaviour. . . The Bishop will be discussing David’s future with him shortly.”

Mr Johnston claimed that Bishop Jones had added to the agreed statement the sentences referring to employment law and Mr Johnston’s future, implying that it was in jeopardy. He denied that Bishop Jones had given the couple any support. They filed their grievance, and were subsequently both signed off from their jobs with stress. Mr Johnston’s suspension was confirmed on 24 January 2007.

The conflict between Mr Johnston and Bishop Jones centres on a grievance appeal that took place on 2 March 2007. At that meeting, he accused Bishop Jones of lying when he said he had given support, and suggested he had turned his attention away from the diocese when he had failed to become Archbishop of York.

The diocese took disciplinary action in relation to the comments about the Bishop. Mr Johnston told a hearing on 12 June 2007 that he had made the comments confidentially, in the context of his grievance, and that they had been taken out of context. He was dismissed at the end of the March meeting, on the grounds of “irretrievable breakdown of trust and confidence”.

An appeal on 18 July 2007 ordered his reinstatement, but he was told that the respondent needed to consider the feasibility of his return. He was put on “gardening leave” until the end of August 2007: a move he described as having “no grace, mercy or humanity. . . I felt like a leper.” He was finally dismissed in September 2007, the diocese having declared his expressed views about the Bishop as “incompatible with the position which he was employed to undertake”.

Jenny Lennox, Mr Johnston’s representative from the National Union of Journalists, said of the meeting at which he was sacked: “In my time as a union official, I have never had any employer attempt to rerun a disciplinary case because they didn’t get the result they wanted. . . I have to admit that this case has involved more underhand tactics and aggressive encounters than any other I have dealt with.”

The tribunal found that Mr Johnston had been unfairly dismissed. He was awarded £14,500 in compensation, reduced from £19,379 for the “intemperate” language he had used about Bishop Jones.

He described the result as “a victory for the little people everywhere. I’m rather shocked, but very happy about the outcome because a grave injustice has been done. I was sacked for saying the Bishop had lied. I feel the Bishop should now resign. Liverpool deserves better.”

A spokesperson for the diocese of Liverpool said on Monday: “While we are disappointed, we accept the tribunal’s decision. It appears that our processes were in some way deficient, and we are looking into this as a matter of urgency. That said, we now want to put this matter behind us and concentrate on the important work of the Diocesan Board of Finance, and support our clergy and congregations in their work pursuing the mission of God in the diocese of Liverpool.

“Allegations made against the Bishop of Liverpool at the employment tribunal have been made by a former employee of the Diocesan Board of Finance. They did not form the basis on which the judgment was awarded. In any case, the diocese rejects these allegations completely. As far as the diocese is concerned, any close examination of the Bishop’s work over the last ten years shows an outstanding level of commitment to our city and diocese. Bishop James was, is, and will continue to be a key voice in and excellent ambassador for the City and diocese of Liverpool.”

The Liverpool Echo came out in support of the Bishop on Tuesday. An editorial described the events as “a high-profile tale of error, confusion and fall-out between church officials and the man charged with promoting their Christian mission”.

It emphasised: “Under legal privilege, Mr Johnston was entitled to say whatever he wished in giving his side of the story. Obviously, he felt deeply let down. But in the context of the Bishop’s overall responsibilities and the way he carries out his office, Mr Johnston’s views will not hold sway with the organisations and groups with which Bishop Jones has voluntarily involved himself.”

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